Varieté (1925) Blu-ray Review: The Spice of Life

Kino Lorber releases a restored look at a visually stunning masterpiece from the German Silent Era.
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If you were one of the many Americans to see Ewald André Dupont's Varieté (aka Variety, Jealousy) when it was first released here ‒ which is highly unlikely, considering it was released nearly a century ago ‒ there's an even better chance you didn't see the whole story. And that's because the 1925 German feature was slimmed down considerably when the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (which would later become the MPAA we all know and regularly question the sanity of today) objected to film's more amoral bits ‒ namely, the sight of miserable carnival resident Emil Jannings leaving his family for a hot young hussy at the beginning.

The editing didn't stop there in many cases, however. Prints of Varieté continued to receive random cuts by various regional/city censorship boards across the country, to the point where only half of the original 94-minute film would be seen in some places. Fortunately for all, Dupont's intended version of Varieté received a recent restoration from the F.W. Murnau Foundation after combing through hundreds of thousands of frames from different prints from around the world in order to re-create what we were supposed to see the first time around. Thankfully, the noble effort to preserve this visual masterpiece has been well worth the time and effort of all patient parties involved.

Here, stocky Faust star (and future subject of political controversy) Emil Jannings plays Boss Huller, a former trapeze artist-turned-sideshow worker, who relates his parable to a prison warden via flashback. Bored by a very dull existence, the husband and father finds himself slipping into more than just the limelight once more after a beautiful dancer named Bertha-Marie (doomed actress Lya De Putti) literally moves in. Deserting his faithful (if extremely lifeless) wife (Maly Delschaft), the Boss man soon deserts his family to pursue an exciting new life with Bertha-Marie, including creating an exciting new highwire act to showcase his titillating new discovery.

Naturally, as most of the men who have found themselves in similar midlife crises at one point or another already knows, the hussy ain't worth it. But that doesn't mean Boss isn't going to give it the ol' college try anyway (another thing everyone who has been in this predicament can attest to). Alas, Bertha-Marie isn't the type of gal who can be held down for very long (even if she is the type who likes that, as you'll probably take note of for yourself), to wit she begins a secret affair with a handsome younger acrobat named Artinelli (English actor Warwick Ward); a relationship which turns into a humiliating situation for Boss as everyone learns about the liaison except him.

It's the very sort of thing that can land a clueless alpha male like Boss in prison, after all.

While the overall story may not be terribly original by today's standards, Varieté rises above its many other melodramatic equivalents like a trapeze artist high on crack thanks to the unseen eyes of director/screenwriter Dupont and a truly phenomenal crew, including cinematographers Karl Freund (Metropolis, Key Largo) and Carl Hoffmann (Faust, Dr. Mabuse the Gambler) and art directors Alfred Junge and Oscar Friedrich Werndorff (both of whom would later work on Alfred Hitchcock's earlier efforts). Ernst Kunstmann and Eugen Schüfftan ‒ who later brought the spectacular effects of Fritz Lang's Metropolis to life ‒ provide the impressive opticals.

Kino Lorber brings this lost classic from the Silent Era to Blu-ray in a jaw-droppingly beautiful (tinted) 1080p transfer. The 50GB, encoded in MPEG-4 AVC, presents the German classic in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio with what essentially boils down to minimal signs of wear and tear, despite the number of sources used in order to make this composite. Accompanying the German-language intertitles (a great deal of which have been recreated for this release) are removable English subtitles. A new score by the Berkeley Silent Film Orchestra is the default (and preferred) audio option, which is presented here as a flawless DTS-HD MA 2.0 Stereo selection.

There's another audio option too, kids, although I can't say I recommend it. Written and performed in 2015 by cult British musical trio The Tiger Lillies, the secondary score features a number of actual songs set to the imagery. At first, it almost feels like you've suddenly stumbled upon the lost video counterpart of a concept album created by the Bronski Beat, what with vocalist Martyn Jacques' falsetto intonations and all. After a while, though, it becomes downright tedious, especially as Jacques' invariably dull voice begins to belt out "Varieté!" every other measure, which leads me to suspect they were paid per the number of times they mentioned the title.

Fortunately, there are other, much better special features to be found on Kino Lorber's release of Varieté, beginning with a 10:35 visual essay on the film by Bret Wood, which points out the film's very heavy symbolism (which you may have to look for), to say nothing of the fact Emil Jannings could do more acting with his back than anyone else. The second extra, simply entitled The Making Of, is a 7:28 look at the creation of the Berkeley Silent Film Orchestra's contribution to the film, and it's truly nice to see a group of young students working together to write a score. Both of the aforementioned bonus features are presented in 1080p HD.

Whereas the recent UK debut of Varieté from Eureka featured German and US edits of the film, Kino Lorber's release only gives us the restored version. But they make up for it by treating us to another movie from the Silent Era entirely ‒ the 1922 German adaptation of William Shakespeare's Othello. Also starring Emil Jannings and Lya De Putti, this version of The Bard's classic tale was directed by Russian-born filmmaker Dimitri Buchowetzki and features the sleaziest, feyest Iago ever (Werner Krauss). The 80-minute film is not presented in HD (for good reason, as the print used is very well worn) with English-language credits and intertitles.

All in all, it's a venerable Varieté that Kino Lorber has given us with this release, which comes Highly Recommended to silent film enthusiasts (and circusfolk) near and far.

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